By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine, one of the last of the leading ladies from Hollywood's Golden Age whose career was marked by a storied and bitter rivalry with her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, died on Sunday at age 96.
Fontaine died in her sleep Sunday morning at her home in Carmel, California which overlooked the Pacific Ocean, after having been in failing health in recent days, said Noel Beutel, a longtime friend of the actress.
"She was an amazing woman, she had such a big heart and she will be missed," Beutel told Reuters, adding that she had had lunch with the actress just last week.
Among Fontaine's most memorable films in a Hollywood career spanning four decades and some four dozen films was the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Suspicion," co-starring Cary Grant, for which she won an Academy Award in 1942, beating out her sister in the competition.
The honor gave Fontaine the distinction of being the only performer, actor or actress, ever to win an Academy Award for a starring role in one of Hitchcock's many movies.
De Havilland, who was nominated that year for "Hold Back the Dawn," went on to win two Oscars of her own for leading roles in the 1946 film "To Each His Own" and the 1949 picture "The Heiress." Now aged 97, de Havilland resides in Paris.
Her Oscar victories established the feuding sisters as the only two siblings ever to both win Academy Awards for acting.
Fontaine also earned Oscar nominations for her star turns in Hitchcock's 1940 American debut, "Rebecca," co-starring opposite Laurence Olivier as a young bride haunted by the memory of her husband's deceased first wife; and the 1943 romantic drama "The Constant Nymph," falling for a dashing composer played by Charles Boyer.
Fontaine appeared mousy and innocent in her early movies but later carefully selected her roles and went on to play worldly, sophisticated women in such films as "Born to be Bad and "Tender is the Night."
She wrote in her 1978 autobiography, "No Bed of Roses," that her sickly condition as a child actually helped develop her acting skills.
In her sickbed fantasies - pillow dreams, she called them - Fontaine created "endless scenes of romance, passion, jealousy, rejection, death. I built and decorated houses, steamships, ballrooms. I designed sets and costumes, cast roles and played them all myself," she wrote.
Her childhood marked the beginning of an enduring rivalry with de Havilland as they competed for parental attention.
"I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from her all through my childhood," Fontaine wrote.
De Havilland reportedly saw her younger sister as a sneaky attention-getter, melodramatically playing sick and trying to outdo her.
The competition was more fierce in 1942 when both sisters were nominated for Oscars and Fontaine took home the statuette for "Suspicion," in which she played an English woman who begins to suspect her charming husband of trying to kill her.
"It was a bittersweet moment," Fontaine later recalled. "I was appalled that I won over my sister."
When de Havilland won her own Oscar for "To Each His Own," she snubbed Fontaine by ignoring her congratulatory gesture at the ceremony. De Havilland reportedly was upset because Fontaine had made a catty remark about her husband.
The sisters were said to have stopped speaking altogether in 1975 after their mother died of cancer. Fontaine said de Havilland had not invited her to the memorial service but her sister claimed Fontaine had said she was too busy to attend.
"I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it," Fontaine was quoted as telling the Hollywood Reporter in 1978, according to the Washington Post.
Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland to British parents in Tokyo on October 22, 1917. In Hollywood she took her stepfather's surname to avoid being confused with the already-established Olivia.
Her first movie role was as Joan Crawford's rival in "No More Ladies" in 1935. It was two years, however, before she returned to the screen in a small role in "Quality Street," starring Katharine Hepburn. That was followed by roles in "A Damsel in Distress" opposite Fred Astaire and "Gunga Din" with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant.
Fontaine was ready to quit movies until a dinner party conversation with producer David O. Selznick, who encouraged her to test for Hitchcock's "Rebecca." Her role as Olivier's shy second wife was a touching performance that brought her enormous attention.
Fontaine often fought with Hollywood studio executives who suspended her for rejecting assigned roles, but she was determined to play willful women instead of waifs.
She found the roles she wanted in films such as "Jane Eyre" opposite Orson Welles in 1944 and "The Affairs of Susan" in 1945, one of her best pictures, in which she plays a woman as seen through the eyes of four suitors.
In 1957, Fontaine caught the spotlight again as a white woman loved by a black man, played by Harry Belafonte, in "Island in the Sun." Critics praised her for "Tender Is the Night," but by the mid-1960s her film career was over.
Her last feature film performance was in the 1966 horror picture "The Witches." She earned a Daytime Emmy nomination for a 1980 guest spot on the television soap opera "Ryan's Hope" and made her final small-screen appearance in the TV movie "Good King Wenceslas."
She was married to British actor Brian Aherne, producer William Dozier, screenwriter-producer Collier Young and sports writer Alfred Wright Jr. She had two daughters.
In her memoirs, Fontaine maintained she repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from multimillionaire Howard Hughes, as well as offers to be the mistress of Joseph Kennedy and other political figures.
In later years she avidly tended her gardens and doted on her dogs, who numbered as many as five and were taken in from animal rescue agencies. Fontaine was also known for being exceptionally gracious to fans, answering correspondence and indulging autograph requests until shortly before her death.
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York; editing by Christopher Wilson and Alister Doyle)